Jul 18, 2021
By Emma Leon

‘I was blindsided by the rate at which COVID-19 spread,’ northern B.C. nurse says

Courtesy of Emma Leon“During the worst weeks of the pandemic, I questioned if I was strong enough, brave enough and confident enough to keep going,” says Emma Leon, a community health nurse in rural northern British Columbia, who works in an area that was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am a nurse. This is a path that I chose, a path that I am honoured and proud to be on.

I am not a new nurse. I am also not a seasoned veteran nurse. I land somewhere in the middle. I would describe myself as strong, confident, brave and ready to tackle many obstacles.

I work in a rural, isolated, Indigenous community in northern British Columbia. I worked through, and continue to work through , the COVID-19 pandemic in this community. During the worst weeks of the pandemic, I questioned if I was strong enough, brave enough and confident enough to keep going. I dared to imagine how bad it could get, but no course, book or online class could have prepared me for what COVID tossed my way. Although we coasted with no cases for an amazing amount of time, that did not soften the blow.

Our hearts broke for families who were forced to grieve in a way that was not culturally appropriate and will leave lasting trauma.

One evening, I received a phone call from a physician alerting me that we had received test results confirming two positive cases in the community. This call is etched in my memory as I was so naïve as to what was coming. I took the news calmly, with a seemingly cocky confidence that we could isolate these individuals and see minimal spread to others. So I was blindsided by the rate at which COVID-19 spread.

Our case count climbed along with that of the entire northern region. The plan was for the regional health authority to perform contact tracing and daily monitoring. But they quickly became unable to handle the workload. So, in a short phone call, I was trained in how to complete these tasks.

The weeks that followed are a blur. We lost precious community members to the COVID-19 virus. We worked, and continue to work, while feeling overwhelmed, helpless and as if we were flying blind. Our hearts broke for families who were forced to grieve in a way that was not culturally appropriate and will leave lasting trauma.

On a good day, the response for an ambulance in the community is approximately one hour. Most days were not good. The community I work in is not the only community the ambulance services in the area. The ambulance was going non-stop, averaging four to five trips per day into our community alone.

In the first weeks after our initial positive cases, we were testing with a 100 per cent positivity rate — and testing was no easy feat. Transportation is a significant barrier to health care in our community as many people do not own vehicles and rely on rides from other community members. So, in an effort to decrease the risk of exposure, we did door-to-door testing. This method is not quick, and it is cold in the middle of winter in the north. In order to wear appropriate personal protective equipment, we could not wear mitts, toques or warm winter clothes. Our goggles fogged and froze. But we persevered, testing, monitoring positive cases, delivering food and supporting the community.

What we didn’t predict was the tidal wave that would wash over us and continue to crash down while we struggled to navigate through it.

It was impossible to keep up with the cases. We drew a map to keep track of each case and what had been done, who had food and where they were staying. It felt like a scene where the characters map out a crime in a movie or the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The hospital that services the community is 60 kilometres away. That is a long way to go for a person who cannot breathe, needs immediate medical attention and is fighting for their life. The hospital was consistently over capacity and flying people out in a helicopter. Watching the helicopter fly over the community was surreal. It was difficult to believe that this was our reality, that we were being hit this hard.

As the weeks went by, we educated, begged and pleaded with community members to isolate, practise social distancing, wash their hands and help slow the spread of the virus. But people cannot distance when the homes they live in are overcrowded. They cannot isolate when they have a positive test result and only one bathroom in a multi-family home. They cannot follow pandemic guidelines when there is no grocery store in their community and they do not have the finances to purchase a 14-day supply of food in order to isolate. They cannot isolate when they are using addictive substances.

So you may be reading this and wondering, “Why was this community hit so hard?” “Why were they not prepared?” “Did they not see what was happening in the rest of the world?” Yes, we did see what was happening. What we didn’t predict was the tidal wave that would wash over us and continue to crash down while we struggled to navigate through it.

Northern British Columbia does not have the resources to adequately manage any health crisis. The region is staggering in size, yet there are only a handful of high-acuity hospitals. Health professionals do not want to live in the north. The lifestyle is not what many people want to make their own. These two factors make working in the north difficult.

I did not get a day off during this time. Another nurse did not take over so that I could have a break. This was not because I wanted to be a hero. It was because there were no nurses who could come. And once you are deep into a pandemic, you can’t really quit. My co-workers saddled up and rode out this experience with me. We held hands, we cried, we were speechless and we fought for this community together. It’s not over. We know this.

I have had the same thought as almost everyone in the world: “This has been a year like no other.” In my community, we can still see the storm raging around us, but we are thankful that we are no longer in its eye. We are also praying that we do not get tossed back into the storm again.

As we paddle through the waters, we continue to vaccinate, educate and provide resources to heal from the trauma that blasted our community.

Emma Leon, RN, BSN, is a community health nurse in rural northern British Columbia. She has had the privilege of working in this role for the past three years. Prior to Emma’s current position, she worked as an acute care nurse for five years in a small hospital that has six acute care beds, six long-term care beds, and a three-bed emergency department. Emma has worked the entirety of her nursing career with a rural, Indigenous focus. Her education was completed at the University of Northern British Columbia. Emma loves the diversity that rural nursing brings, the challenges of thinking outside of the box to meet the needs of every individual, and the joy of bringing meaningful, lasting change to people’s lives.

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